Goodreads: The Mirk and Midnight Hour
Series: Strands #2
With her twin brother dead and her father gone off to fight for the South, Violet Dancey is trying to hold her life together. Unfortunately, her new stepmother is addicted to laudanum, her stepsister Sunny is an obnoxious flirt, and her cousin Dorian seems charming but could mean trouble. Then Violet and her young cousin Seeley find an injured Union soldier in the woods. Unexpectedly, he’s handsome and intelligent, nothing like she thought a Yankee would be. But why are the mysterious VanZeldts caring from him? Will he be a victim of their dark powers? A retelling of “Tam Lin.”
Jane Nickerson’s The Mirk and Midnight Hour reimagines the Scottish tale of “Tam Lin” in Civil War-era Mississippi. Her interest in the Southern Gothic combined with a story of forbidden love makes the story intriguing. Unfortunately, the plot feels a little messy and the depiction of slavery indicates that, even though Nickerson seems to be attempting to deal with the difficulties inherent in discussing such a terrible topic, she ultimately is unable to avoid reinforcing stereotypes or to avoid the influence of the narrative of the Lost Cause.
[Spoilers Ahead for the Rest of the Review.] The uncomfortable depiction of slavery and Black individuals is in, fact, part of the reason the plot feels like such a mess. In Nickerson’s retelling of “Tam Lin,” the fairies are replaced by voodoo practitioners. Because they are invoking mysterious powers, Nickerson wants to depict them as strange and other-worldly. And, of course, as villainous. This gets incredibly awkward since it means that the people of the town see the African men and women as something other than people. They move strangely, are associated with snakes. and are referred to as (by another Black character) “People-things” to indicate that they are not normal. In a book where race and racial politics must always be at the forefront, associating Black characters with dark powers and wrongness is…well, it feels wrong. Furthermore,the voodoo really doesn’t add much to the plot but seems like it was awkwardly tacked on to a standard Union-Confederate forbidden romance story. So these depictions and their problematic implications could have easily be edited out and improved the book in more ways than one.
The book, however, seems unsure exactly how to deal with racial politics even while it seems clear it knows that it has to. For example, Nickerson seems to realize that depicting a young woman whose family owns slaves and making that woman the heroine is going to be a problem. She attempts to deal with this by making Violet and her slave Laney friends. Violet and Laney grew up together, share secrets, even do the household chores together. Violet loves Laney’s baby Cubby and babysits him. There are two nods given to this inexplicable arrangement. Violet muses randomly that if she were Laney she would run to the Union lines despite the friendship. And Laney reminds Violet at one point that she cannot, in fact, drop Master Seeley’s formal title when speaking about him. Otherwise, however, slavery is depicted as fairly benign. In fact, the neighbor and her slave Jubal seem to have had feelings for each other and are great friends, too!
There is one conversation in which the question of slavery is more explicitly addressed. Violet’s Union soldier explains he is fighting to end a great wrong. Violet halfheartedly gives a few sentences about slavery being necessary to the economy (like she would really care), Abraham owning slaves in the Bible, and her kind treatment to her slaves. Ultimately, however, the sense is that Violet just really hasn’t thought about slavery that much and simply accepts it. Perhaps that’s the scariest depiction one could give of the insidiousness of the evil of slavery, but the book doesn’t follow this up except to have Violet suddenly have an equally half-hearted repentance. She apologizes to Laney for having Laney as a slave. Laney, perhaps realizing that she is still a slave, that the apology doesn’t mean much as a result, and that as a slave she cannot be honest about her emotions with her masters, seems to forgive Violet like it’s all no big deal.
Add to this the inclusion of a Black man who attempts rape and the stereotypical stronger-than-average Black man and the book gets increasingly more troubling. Yes, Black characters should be able to be presented in a wide range of ways, should get to be the good guys or the villains or the people in-between. However, when you add these two depictions to everything else going on in the book, it really seems like the books perhaps just is not aware of the implications of some of the characterizations. I can only conclude that there is a lack of knowledge because the explanation for the presence of the voodoo practitioners in Mississippi is that they voluntarily moved there as free people because they thought they would blend in. They could have moved to anywhere in the world and they chose to move to a place where they would be hated and despised and would not have legal freedoms? It makes no sense, but the underlying implication is that slavery must not be such a big deal if free Africans would purposely move to the Civil War South!
Probably this story should have been written as a standard romance without the addition of the voodoo practitioners. And probably if Nickerson wanted Violet to be sympathetic, she should have made Violet a secret Union sympathizer and non-slave owner from the start. There are complex questions that could have been addressed, such as Violet’s blithe ignorance of the evils of slavery and what that tells us about how seemingly ordinary people can do something so wrong, but, if they are not going to be addressed, it’s going to make the book an extremely troubling read.